Veterans on vacation at the Madison Double R.
The birds are up before everyone. Migrants mostly—singing, cawing, and fluttering past the window. Slowly, the sun wakes up, casting long yellow beams through the timber, across the flats, and onto the water. Finally, it crests Sphinx Mountain—the top of our horizon line—and shines uncontested over the entire Madison Valley.
Coffee tastes good inside the walls of the Madison Double R, the newly built, exquisite fishing lodge southeast of Varney Bridge. Owner John Sampson is hosting me, as well as four veterans and their wives, for a weekend of luxury on the house. The food is gourmet, the drinks are cold, and from what we hear, the fishing is hot. Mike, the liveliest of the four Marines, joins me for breakfast. He walks into the 3,500-square-foot main lodge, takes a long look out of the enormous windows, admires the architecture holding them in place, and orders a Bloody Mary. “Ahhh,” he sighs. “It’s gonna be a good day.”
Soon, we’re joined by his three comrades: Dan, Justin, and Warren. The four went to MARSOC (Marine Forces Special Operations Command) together, but it’s been 10 years since they were all in the same place. They share a strong bond, though. Swapping stories, nearly finishing each other’s sentences, they converse on a level only accessible through shared adversity and experience. Though there’s no way to directly relate, I’m honored to sit at the same table, share a meal, and hear their story.
It turns out, in 2009, the four of them experienced a firefight in which Justin was blown out of a Humvee. You wouldn’t tell by looking at him, but after numerous back surgeries, his body hasn’t been the same since. Warren was the medic on scene. Through stories like this, it doesn’t take long for me to figure out how their brotherhood runs so deep.
After breakfast, Double R guides shuttle us to a put-in on the upper Madison. Not an hour from the lodge, and we’re drifting through ripples and casting flies; nothing else seems to be on anyone’s mind. Mike scores first, landing a proud whitefish. I hook into a brown shortly after, then Dan nets a fine rainbow. It’s a good day indeed.
Halfway through the day, Mike breaks out his spin rod, and his frequency of success increases dramatically. Watching him from afar, I’m tickled that he has the guts to pull out a spinner on a guided trip. For whatever reason, fly fishing conjures self-righteousness, so it’s nice to see people immune to it. After all, it’s just fishing.
We return to the lodge for cocktail hour. All of the wives share a table, so I pull up a chair of my own and make a point to get to know them. It’s Brooke, Kristin, Jessica, and Kerri. Every one of them tells me they’ve never been on a vacation like this before. I ask them to elaborate and am amazed when Kristin tells me that she and Justin, despite being married since 2010, have never spent a weekend alone together.
“I’ll go wherever she wants,” Justin tells me. “The last 20 years have been on my schedule, so now it’s her turn.” His retirement paperwork begins in October, and with virtually no planning, Montana seems to be near the top of the list. In fact, all of them comment on how they’d like this trip to Big Sky country not to be their last. All of them declare that it would be a great place to settle down.
Dan, Justin, and Mike are from the south, and it seems that Montana has cast its spell on them like it has so many of us. The river, the mountains, the Madison Double R—they’re all reasons why any sane person would want to return.
But with Warren, it’s a little different. He’s been guiding on the Madison River since before he even went to MARSOC. For a while, he led hundreds of trips every summer. “When I was first guiding, I’d row clients until four, then rig up myself, float another stretch, and fish the evening with the rest of the guides,” he says.
“I imagine, after all this time, you don’t return to that same water on your own,” I venture.
“Actually, I do,” he says. “If I’ve missed a fish in the same hole twice in a row, I want to get him that much more.”
For Warren, the answer to my question of where he’ll end up isn’t so speculative: his flag has already been planted in Ennis.
“When I leave here,” he says, “it’s gonna be in a pine box.”